Caught in the crossfire of Iraq, can the Prime Minister survive?

Iraq has claimed the careers of a newspaper editor, two cabinet ministers and the top men at the BBC. And at Westminster there is only one topic of conversation: could it also claim the premiership of Tony Blair? Andy McSmith reports
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Indy Politics

The long branches of the Iraq problem spread and spread, tripping up people who were not even aware that they needed to watch their step. Last week a charismatic tabloid newspaper was brought crashing down, and a middle-ranking minister had what must have been the most stressful week of his political life.

But whatever the stresses faced by Adam Ingram, the Armed Forces minister, so far all the big-name casualties of the war, from Robin Cook to the Daily Mirror's ex-editor, Piers Morgan, were opposed to the war or critical of some aspect of it. No one who was implicated in sending troops into that unpopular war has suffered a career reversal yet, though some have had career-threatening experiences.

Now in Westminster's febrile village, the speculation grows that the chronic Iraq crisis might claim its biggest political casualty yet, the Prime Minister himself.

John Prescott, who has served as Tony Blair's loyal deputy for 10 years, dropped a bombshell by talking to a Times journalist about people repositioning themselves because "tectonic plates" appeared to be moving.

What put the wind up other cabinet ministers was Mr Prescott declaring, "I'm privileged to have discussions about all these things and I will keep that privilege... I listen to these speculations when I have another perspective." Mr Prescott's comments so excited one anonymous punter that he was on the phone to Ladbroke's yesterday morning placing a £2,000 bet at 5/1 that Mr Blair would be gone before the election. The odds then dropped to 3/1.

A cabinet minister who does not want Mr Blair to step down said: "This reference to personal conversations that he is not at liberty to divulge was alarming. There is this uneasy watchfulness. People feel they know where they are, then something like this happens and it disturbs it all." But those in the Prime Minister's immediate circle are adamant that punters who bet on his early departure are throwing their money away. Resignation is just not on his mind, they insist.

Downing Street yesterday gave out details about Mr Blair's thoughts for the handover of power in Iraq on 30 June, as a way of demonstrating that he definitely intends to stay at least until 1 July. "And after," a spokesman added gruffly.

While Mr Blair dismisses all speculation about his future as "froth" he generated a few bubbles himself by inviting senior Guardian journalists to his country residence, Chequers, a week ago. One of his guests was an old personal friend, Martin Kettle, who went away to write a scathing column accusing the Prime Minister of being blind to the seriousness of the crisis besetting him. Another guest, The Guardian's political editor, Michael White, reported Mr Blair as saying that he would step down if he became a liability to his party.

In any of Mr Blair's previous 10 years as Labour leader, that "if" would have been so big as to make the whole statement meaningless. His mainstay of parliamentary support has traditionally been the "class of '97" - the MPs holding on to small majorities in predominantly middle-class constituencies, wrested from the Tories after Mr Blair took over the party leadership.

Stephen Ladyman, Gareth Thomas and Paul Clark, the three government ministers who have approached The Independent on Sunday to say, in effect, that Tony is the only leader for Labour, all entered Parliament in 1997, in seats previously held by the Tories.

The Independent on Sunday analysed the voting records of the 50 Labour MPs whose seats would be most at risk in an election, from Jim Knight, who took Dorset South in 2001 with a majority of just 153, to Derek Wyatt who holds Sittingbourne and Sheppey with a 3,509 majority.

A majority of the group - 28 out of 50 - have backed Tony Blair on every difficult issue, even during the huge rebellions against the Iraq war, the creation of foundation hospitals, and the introduction of university tuition fees. Only one of the 50, the Calder Valley MP Christine McCafferty, took part in all three of those big rebellions.

Now, for the first time, activists canvassing for Labour candidates in the 10 June elections are hearing the opposite of what they are used to hearing. Instead of being the leader who pulls in the vote, Tony Blair is threatening to be an electoral drag on his party, with potential supporters saying that they will not vote Labour again until he is gone.

There is some evidence of Labour support holding up in the white, working-class areas where Iraq is not a big issue. But overall, Labour is bracing itself for spectacular setbacks - particularly where there are high concentrations of Muslim voters.

Ahmed Versi, editor of Muslim News, forecasts more débâcles like last year's by-election, in which the supposedly solid Labour seat of Brent East was snatched away by the Liberal Democrats.

"A lot of Muslims will either not vote, or they will change from voting Labour. Very few will vote for the Conservatives. I think most of them will go to the Liberal Democrats," he said.

To add to the pain, the news will be spread out over a whole weekend, with the first council results coming in late on the Thursday night, and the results of elections to the European parliament delayed until Sunday. On Monday 14 June, Labour MPs will reassemble, shell-shocked by days of bad news.

Mr Blair last week paid a campaigning visit to the North-east of England, which has the distinction of having been the one English region to stay solidly loyal in the late-1970s, as Labour's support collapsed everywhere else. Labour has held Newcastle city council since 1964, but faces a real risk of losing it to the Liberal Democrats, along with other big cities such as Birmingham and Leeds.

Defeat, if it comes, will be despite Labour's economic record rather than because of it. One experienced Newcastle councillor said: "There is a degree of contentment that there are more jobs around, crime is down, property values are going up. Some of those Gordon Brown-type policies like the working families tax credit really have transformed people's lives. But there is a good deal of hostility to Blair and a strong feeling against involvement in Iraq. When people bring up national issues, those issues are Iraq and asylum."

A party worker who has been out canvassing in a middle-class part of London, where immigration is not an issue, said: "We're coming up continually against people who say they're not voting for Tony Blair. You have to say it's not a vote for Blair; it's a vote for Ken Livingstone."

A West Midlands MP with a consistent record for backing Blair admitted that the substantial Muslim vote in his constituency may be lost this time, though he hopes to hold on to some of it. "We hear people saying that they'll vote for Labour when they've got rid of Tony Blair - not a lot, but a few," he said.

Mr Blair himself was as upbeat on Friday as he usually is out on the stomp. Interviewed by the Evening Chronicle, the local newspaper in Newcastle, he brushed aside talk of his future as the "usual froth and bubble". But he then drew an ill-chosen comparison between himself and Newcastle United's manager, Bobby Robson, whose brilliant career might be drawing to an abrupt end.

Meanwhile, those spreading branches of the Iraq crisis entangle the Government in unexpected ways. Last February a lawyer working as an adviser to Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who was the British envoy in Iraq, was passed a report from the International Red Cross summarising the concerns the charity had raised over the previous months about the treatment of civilians by coalition troops. It included three complaints about the British, one of which was bewilderingly trivial, but the other two were serious allegations about the abuse of prisoners.

But the lawyer had heard these complaints already and knew they were being investigated, and apparently did not even show the Red Cross report to Sir Jeremy. A copy was forwarded to the appropriate section of the Foreign Office, but there it disappeared into the river of messages that pours in from diplomats around the world.

Jack Straw personally receives some 400 of these electronic messages - still quaintly known as telegrams - every working day; his ministers about 80 each. Of course, they don't read them all: they have staff who sift through them deciding which ones are significant enough to be passed to the minister.

It appears that no one thought that the report from the Red Cross was important enough even to be forwarded to the Ministry of Defence a few hundred yards along Whitehall. Last week, civil servants were engaged in a frantic trawl through computer records trying to ascertain just who had seen the half-forgotten report.

This oversight brought political trouble pouring down on the head of Mr Ingram because, as The Independent on Sunday pointed out last week, he had claimed in the Commons not to have received any report about prisoner abuse by British troops. The Red Cross, on the other hand, was saying it had sent just such a report to the British three months ago.

This caused Mr Ingram to spend days fighting for political survival, trying to convince highly sceptical MPs that he was telling the truth. Even as he announced one unqualified gain for the Government - the exposure of the hoax pictures published in the Daily Mirror - he was sweating at the despatch box under a welter of questions about a report that no one in the bureaucracy had thought was important.

It was one of countless political snares arising out of the Iraq conflict which, put together, have convinced some despairing Labour MPs that there is no way they can escape all this trouble under a Prime Minister who is too deeply involved to extricate himself. If, as it appears, Prescott has joined those who now think that Blair is a drag on the Labour Party, then the Prime Minister's time in office may be running out.

HOW THE CABINET DIVIDES

The transformers vs the consolidators

Leaving aside all the personal rivalries and animosities, the real political divide in today's Cabinet is between the "transformers" and the "consolidators".

This is the latest version of the divide that has assailed the Labour Party for more than a decade. Once it was between "modernisers" and "traditionalists", then it was between New Labour and Old Labour.

The big difference now is that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are on different sides. In Cabinet, Mr Blair's main allies are John Reid, the Health Secretary (pictured), and Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary.

They also have the backing of the so-called "outriders", led by the former cabinet ministers Alan Milburn, Stephen Byers and Peter Mandelson.

If Tony Blair were to stand down in the near future, the transformers would be keen to challenge Gordon Brown for the succession - not necessarily because they expect to beat him, but to show him that he cannot expect the Blairites to vanish from the scene when their leader is gone. Either Reid or Clarke is thought to be tough enough to hold his own in a contest.

The "transformers" believe the Labour Party needs to fight next year's general election on a radical manifesto, promising dramatic changes to the public services. Their ideas for reform are likely to extend the notion of what the experts call "co-payment", which generally means charging those who can afford it for services that are currently paid for out of taxation. Student fees, motorway charges, and congestion charges are all forms of "co-payment".

Gordon Brown and the "consolidators", who include John Prescott and the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, think that too much emphasis on promises to change the way public services are run could be read as an admission of failure after so many years in power. They think Labour should concentrate on the Government's achievements and on warning that a Conservative government would undo them.

Other firm allies of Brown at Cabinet level include the Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, and the Work and Pensions Secretary, Andrew Smith.

Talking to The Times, John Prescott let fly about the "transformers". "This whole argument about choice," he said, "they present it as if is some sort of ideological divide. But everyone is in favour of choice in some sense.

"The problem with the reforming argument is that you always have to criticise what you've done. It's all right in opposition, but when it is seven years, you have to be proud of what you've done."

Gordon Brown would go along with every word of that.

It is also generally true that the "transformers" are more pro-European than the "consolidators", and would like to see rapid progress towards joining the single currency, while the "consolidators" are reluctant to risk economic success achieved outside the eurozone.

There are exceptions. Peter Hain, for example, is keenly pro-Euro, as a former minister for Europe, and keen on constitutional reform, but has never aligned himself with the "transformers" in the debate over the future of public services.

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